‘Critical errors’ hamper UMass football in loss to Eastern Michigan

  • UMass running back Ellis Merriweather ran for 142 yards agains Eastern Michigan on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. He became the first Minuteman to eclipse the century mark since 2019. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

  • UMass defenders Hugo Klages, left, Jason Weir, Uchenna Ezewike, right, and Viczaril Aldbwede gang tackle Eastern Michigan running back Bryson Moss along the sideline in the first quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

  • UMass quarterback Brady Olson fires a psss down the field in the first quarter Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst. COURTESY J. ANTHONY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2021 9:32:50 PM

AMHERST – Playing catch up got away from the UMass football team in a 42-28 loss against Eastern Michigan on Saturday at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

The Eagles scored 21 points in the game’s first 18 minutes then held the Minutemen at arm’s length for the rest of the game. It’s the third game in a row UMass (0-3) has fallen behind by two scores in the first quarter.

“It's something that we emphasize every day. Obviously I'm not coaching it well enough, but that's one of our things that matters, starting fast and execution,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “It's execution, and again, that's on us as coaches, so we're not starting fast enough, that’s on me.”

The Minutemen lost for the 14th consecutive game, the second longest active streak in the nation behind Arizona. The Wildcats lost 21-19 to FCS foe Northern Arizona late Saturday night.

UMass played even with the Eagles over the final 45 minutes but squandered chances to cut Eastern Michigan’s lead to one score.

UMass freshman quarterback Brady Olson connected with Melvin Hill on a 45-yard deep shot with 1 minute, 51 seconds left in the third quarter that made it 28-14.

Then the UMass defense forced the Eagles to go three and out for the first time all game and punt thanks to two pass break ups from corner Donte Lindsay. But Jermaine “OC” Johnson clipped Eastern Michigan’s punter and earned a roughing penalty that resurrected the drive.

Lindsay kept at it, forcing a Darius Boone fumble on the next play. Vizcar Alobwede fell onto the ball to return it to UMass. Olson connected with Hill on a 17-yard pass. The freshman went back to the well the next play, but Hill couldn’t hold on after the reception and fumbled. T.J. Peavy recovered for the Eagles to end the third quarter.

Eastern Michigan drove 80 yards in five plays, and Jawon Hamilton finished it with a 10-yard touchdown. That pushed the Eagles advantage to 35-14 with 12:36 left.

“We had a critical special teams error but got bailed out by the defense, but again just too many critical errors when you’re playing a football team that’s as good as they are,” Bell said. “If we capitalized on some things that happened, that’s going to be a shootout.”

UMass’ offense held up its end of the bargain. The Minutemen gained 519 yards of offense and picked up 30 first downs. They hadn’t hit those marks since a triple-0vertime win against Liberty in 2018. 

Olson threw for 288 yards and two scores. He also ran for 16 yards and caught a 25-yard pass. The Milford native also missed some easy throws and threw an interception.

“He did some things that you would expect a freshman to do, but he also did some things that a really good player does,” Bell said. “He’s a tough kid. We’ve got to continue to eliminate the big mistakes, and he’ll get better every time we play.”

It will likely be Olson’s show for the foreseeable future. Bell said he didn’t know how long Tyler Lytle, the Colorado transfer who started the season opener, would be out, but added he “would expect it to be a while.”

The Minutemen played without their preseason No. 1 quarterback and running back (Kay’Ron Adams), plus a host of players in the trenches. 

The offense found capable replacements. Ellis Merriweather ran for a UMass career-high 142 yards on 23 carries, including multiple bursts over 20 yards.

“I feel like I’m still coming into my own as a running back. I feel like I probably left some stuff out there on the field,” he said. “The offensive line blocked their butts off, gave me a lot of room.”

Merriweather played nearly every snap on offense and contributed to the special teams, but he missed part of UMass’ first drive of the first quarter. Enter freshman Carter Scudo. The converted wide receiver from Milford carried the ball four times for 33 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown with 6:27 remaining that cut the deficit to 35-21.

“He’s going to make himself irreplaceable. I have no idea what his role is going to be someday, but I know he’s going to be on the field and he’s going to be helping UMass football,” Bell said.

After Scudo’s score made it 35-21, Eastern Michigan quarterback Ben Bryant delivered a strike, finding receiver Zach Westmoreland for a 54-yard catch and run on third down with 4:07 left. Bryant finished 14-of-21 for 298 yards, receiving a bulk of the offensive snaps for an Eagles squad that has alternated quarterbacks this season.

Olson, who took every snap for the Minutemen, still wasn’t done. He opened with a nine-yard run after escaping a sack and was leveled out of bounds. A scrum ensued, and UMass defensive lineman Taishan Holmes was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejected for stepping on the field when he was in street clothes.

Merriweather ripped off a 26-yard gain two plays later, and Olson finished the drive with a 29-yard touchdown toss to tight end Josiah Johnson leaping backward and turning back to the ball for the score with 53 seconds left. It was Johnson’s second TD of the day. The former quarterback also made UMass’ first trip to the end zone with a bruising one-yard run before halftime.

The Eagles stretched their lead to three scores again with 2:48 left in the third quarter. Darius Boone ran off tackle to the right out of a wildcat formation with running back Samson Evans at quarterback, finding the end zone after a one-yard run. Boone scored two touchdowns, and Jawon Hamilton gained 122 yards on the ground and found the end zone once.

Eastern Michigan ran for 184 yards and five touchdowns as a team. UMass’ first two opponents went over 200 yards on the ground.

“You gotta be better on the edge of a defense. Our edge players have a tremendous amount of pressure on them, and we did not do a very good job,” Bell said. “We’re short bodies, but that’s no excuse. That was bad today. We’ve got to fix it. It’s got to get fixed soon.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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